On A Train With Loud Horns

The BBC made a series of three documentaries dealing with Indian Hill Railways, shown in February 2010. The first film covers the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has long been viewed with affection and enthusiasm by travelers to the region, and the Earl of Ronaldshay gave the following description of a journey in the early 1920s:

“One steps into a railway carriage which might easily be mistaken for a toy, and the whimsical idea seizes hold of one that one has accidentally stumbled into Lilliput. With a noisy fuss out of all proportion to its size the engine gives a jerk — and starts … Sometimes we cross our own track after completing the circuit of a cone, at others we zigzag backwards and forwards; but always we climb at a steady gradient — so steady that if one embarks in a trolley at Ghum, the highest point on the line, the initial push supplies all the energy necessary to carry one to the bottom.”

Since that time, the trip up to Darjeeling on railway has changed little and continues to delight travelers and rail enthusiasts, so much so that it has its own preservation and support group, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society. Several films have portrayed the railway. Especially popular was the song ‘Mere sapno ki rani’ from the film Aradhana where the protagonist Rajesh Khanna tries to woo heroine Sharmila Tagore who was riding in the train. Other notable films include Barfi, Parineeta and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman.

DHR was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999, only the second railway to have this honour bestowed upon it, the first one being Semmering Railway of Austria in 1998. It fulfilled: Criterion (ii), the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is an outstanding example of the influence of an innovative transportation system on the social and economic development of a multi-cultural region, which was to serve as a model for similar developments in many parts of the world, and Criterion (iv), the development of railways in the 19th century had a profound influence on social and economic developments in many parts of the world. This process is illustrated in an exceptional and seminal fashion by the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

Since 1881, the original route has been retained in a remarkable condition. Only minimal interventions of an evolutionary nature, such as the reduction of loops, have been carried out. Most of the original steam locomotives are still in use. Like Tea and the Ghurka culture, the DHR has become not only an essential feature of the landscape but also an enduring part of the identity of Darjeeling.

The railway line basically follows the Hill Cart Road which is partially the same as National Highway 55. Usually, the track is simply on the road side. In case of landslides both track and road might be affected. As long parts of the road are surrounded with buildings, the railway line often rather resembles urban tramway tracks than an overland line.

To warn residents and car drivers about the approaching train, engines are equipped with very loud horns that even drown horns of Indian trucks and buses. Trains horn almost without pause.

One of the main difficulties faced by the DHR was the steepness of the climb. Features called loops and Z-Reverses were designed as an integral part of the system at different points along the route to achieve a comfortable gradient for the stretches in between them. When the train moves forwards, reverses and then moves forward again, climbing a slope each time while doing so, it gains height along the side of the hill.

Stations for the Darjeeling Hill Railway are:- New Jalpaiguri, Siliguri Town, Siliguri Junction, Sukna, Rangtong, Chunabhatti, Tindharia, Gayabari, Mahanadi, Kurseong, Tung, Dilaram, Sonada, Rangbul, Jor Bungalow, Ghum, Batasia Loop, Darjeeling.

Ghum, is the summit of the line and highest station in India. Now includes a museum on the first floor of the station building with larger exhibits in the old goods yard. Once this was the railway station at highest altitude overall and is the highest altitude station for narrow gauge railway. At Batasia Loop, 5 km from Darjeeling, below Ghum, there is also a memorial to the Gorkha soldiers of the Indian Army who sacrificed their lives after the Indian Independence in 1947. From the Batasia Loop one can get a panoramic view of Darjeeling town with the Kanchenjunga and other snowy mountains in the back-drop. The farthest reach of the line was to Darjeeling Bazaar, a goods-only line and now lost under the road surface and small buildings.